Cambodia, being a spy and the best pool in the world

Angkor Wat, and a sub-standard pool

You can’t choose the things that stick with you about a place. In Cambodia is Angkor Wat, the ancient complex of once-lost Khmer temples, an abandoned jungle city twice the size of Manhattan, an otherworldly confection of hand-smoothed and weather-worked stone as fine and dreamy as spun sugar. At dawn, the sun comes up like an orange-flavoured effervescent tablet going the wrong way in the glass, and the silver mists turn gold and the spires of the temples burn above the canopy of the jungle trees. It’s one of life’s unforgettable sights, and yet what I remember most fondly is the swimming pool.

I stayed in a hotel just outside Siem Reap, a collection of bungalows in sprawling, steaming grounds around the best swimming pool in the world. I arrived in the heavy Asian heat, wet and crumpled as one of Pavarotti’s handkerchiefs after a heavy aria, and checked in behind the two unhappiest human beings on Earth. They were from somewhere in Europe, which is bad enough, and had two small children, which is worse, and they had such an air of hovering frustration and regret you could only imagine each was brooding ruefully on the failure of their plane to crash and free them from the purgatory of their holiday. It’s good to see people like that when travelling; it makes me feel better about being me.

The other thing that made me feel good was the pool. It is 250 metres long and as lithe and narrow as a snake, winding like a hidden Asian river in switchbacks and oxbows through a landscaped jungle. The sides are overhung by banyan trees and reeds chirruping with tree frogs, and there are lanterns on poles along the banks and slatted wooden footbridges and flat-bottomed sampans, and at one end it opens into a wide lagoon. Only a heart from which all joy has been drained could see that swimming pool and not recognise that here is the best reason so far for travelling halfway across the world.

The next day I saw a thin green snake sliding between the stones at Angkor Thom and I cupped the breasts of the stone-carved Apsara dancers for good luck and on the sidewalk in Siem Reap I ate a deep-fried tarantula (which tastes like charcoal, until you reach the head, which makes you long for the taste of charcoal) but all I wanted to do was get back to the pool.

I waited until late that night. An orange moon rose and the water shimmered in the lantern light. I slipped in as stealthily as a Viet Cong and hippo-paddled the length of the river with just my face above water, like Martin Sheen at the end of Apocalypse Now. I hung from slats under the bridges and looked for spots to place limpet mines. This was the pool I had been looking for all my life. There’d be no reason to be a Bond villain or a Elon Musk if you didn’t use your money to make a pool like this.

And then I came stalking around a river bend and the lights were on in one of the bungalows. I stopped and looked. The man from earlier stood in the bathroom, staring in the mirror. Outside on the porch his wife sat smoking and staring into the Asian night. The children must have been asleep in some back room. Neither of them moved. Nor did I. I suppose I should have felt guilty for spying on them but I didn’t stop because isn’t that what travel is: a shameless peering at the lives of others? How is it worse if those others are also travellers?

The man in the bathroom took a deep breath and then left the room and turned off the light. I watched as he came out on the porch and sat next to his wife. Neither of them looked at each other and I thought I had never seen two such unhappy people. But the truth of life shows itself only in moments. We travel to gather moments, and one of my favourite moments is bobbing in the best swimming pool ever made, on the fringes of the Cambodian jungle, watching a man finally, hesitantly, gently put his hand on his wife’s shoulder, and watching her close her eyes and rest her cheek against it, weary, but with love.

Getaway, 8 December 2014